‘It must be about time/ for a change’

In our notes to the publication The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure, Richie McCaffery and I allude to the circumstances that led to our joining forces on the project. That a writer and critic then living in Ghent, and a small publishing house based in Orkney should come together for the purposes of publishing the first selection of poetry by an author so strongly associated with her home city of Glasgow, and so long forgotten, might indeed seem curious. It’s not as though Brae Editions was even, on the face of it, still a going concern, but several years into what might have passed for dormancy.

We both had some previous association with Glasgow, of course, my own being rather more intermittent in recent years, and tending to concentrate on my PhD research (hence the inactivity, publishing-wise) at Northumbria University. This concerned the early career of the poet, artist and gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay. As noted elsewhere, I am now researching his life and work in order to write his biography. I was initially interested in Ure because she and Finlay had known one another from at least the mid-1950s, and I wanted, partly through her, to find out as much as I could about his rather obscure career over that period, up to the early 1960s, and its context. Among other things, like Ure, he was active then as a playwright. But I had grown to like what I was able to learn about her. I admired her work, when I happened to come across it, and I enjoyed her vigour and spirit personally and from what I knew of her as an artist. There wasn’t much in print, but there was that photograph on the moped. She intrigued me.

Richie’s connections with Glasgow are more substantial, in that although he comes originally from Northumberland, he lived and studied there for a decade. A Carnegie Trust Caledonian scholar at the University of Glasgow, he earned his PhD in 2016, his thesis being concerned with Scottish poets of World War Two. That focus implies only a small part of the very extensive range of interest he takes in the field. As his entry states on the Scottish Poetry Library website, ‘his essays, largely on Scottish poetry of the second half of the twentieth century, have appeared in The Scottish Literary Review, The Dark Horse, Northwords Now, Fras and Etudes ecossaises.’  His own website can be found hereRichie is currently in the final stages of editing a volume of essays on the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith, for publication by Brill, date to be confirmed.

Not surprisingly, we had never previously encountered one another. But at the start of November 2017, we both happened to be working at the National Library of Scotland, and we met under circumstances that, as noted in that editorial, ‘might seem improbable’. It was I who made the connection, but given how the project has unfolded since then, it rather seems as though circumstances themselves were behind the thing.

At the end of October 2017 I’d attended part of a weekend literary event being held in Glasgow (the Peter Manson Symposium, the first such). During a break I asked one of the speakers, who I’d heard being introduced as also recently having completed a PhD in the field, whether he knew anything about one or two now quite obscure Scottish poets of the post-War period. Well yes, he said, though probably not as much as Richie McCaffery, but he lives in Belgium. Ah, I thought. Next time I’m heading over that way… Yet perhaps I’d write, though it would be a rather vague inquiry, and nothing urgent, but anyway I looked him up on the SPL website.

Now, I’ve been describing this curious sequence of events, quite off the cuff, in the course of the two launches that we’ve organised, to date, for The Tiny Talent. Having come to write it down, however, and consult my diary, I find my memory has been at fault. What I could have sworn to, is that the very next morning I went into the NLS, and upstairs to Special Collections and there, diagonally across the large table at which I’d put down my stuff, was this chap who looked very like the photograph I’d seen on the SPL website. At which I was amazed, and (perforce) speechless. Could it be… He looked extremely busy, sifting though a folder of letters, and making notes, rather like, I thought, a man who’s only got a few hours before he must leave again for Ghent…

It is very quiet in Special Collections. You feel you will be remembered if you make an untoward noise. And I am glad of the silence. (Save a floorboard near the issue desk that slightly creaks.)

Yet in fact it wasn’t the very next day (which was a Sunday: Portobello and Duddingston), nor even the day after (General Reading Room), but on the Tuesday that I came, saw and waited my moment. I was hoping this familiar-seeming individual would soon get to the end of the folder and return it to the counter. For this would allow me to squint properly at the library card that was lying on his desk —at its postage-stamp corner, the one nearest me.

At length, he did. I leaned across…

‘Richie McCaffery.’

How to make an approach. Conveniently, Richie left to consult the catalogues. These are located behind a partition, relatively out of the way with respect to the room as a whole (and out of earshot, as I thought). I sped behind him and whispered my questions, he his answers. We talked more, the field of reference expanding in moments. Expression entered our voices, lent the conversation wings—

Swiftly chastised, we returned to our places, having arranged to meet the next morning downstairs.

I was impressed the next day, and the day following, by Richie’s close knowledge of his subject, and by his passionate interest, not least in the writers whose work had been lost, or as good as lost to contemporary awareness. And by his willingness to share what he knew. Perhaps he mentioned that he’d written a lengthy essay on the topic for the next edition of The Dark Horse: ‘Mither Tongue: Scottish Women Poets of the 20th Century’.

And so we got onto the subject of Joan Ure, a ‘Glaswegian poet and playwright … (1918-1978), real name Elizabeth Clark, [who] was the most outstanding voice of her time, still at risk of near-total neglect’ op. cit.

And as we spoke, I began to think about reviving Brae Editions in order to publish some of her poetry, and I voiced the suggestion. No one else seemed to be doing so; it is staggeringly good work, and still very much alive; Richie already knew it thoroughly, and had the title all prepared. It fitted my own research interests well enough to devote the time.

Further, from where we were sitting I could see the exhibition room entranceway all wonderfully well set up for the Muriel Spark Centenary. I’d heard of the WS Graham Centenary too, and lots about Margaret Tait, but where was Joan Ure being celebrated next year?

We agreed we would try and follow it through, if we could. For this rider of mopeds, this complex feminist, this non-poet, this ‘Tiny Talent’, Betty Clark/ Joan Ure.